Monday, June 11, 2007

Is WWeek Getting Duped on Johnson Story?

[Apologies for length; gotta be thorough here...]

While The Mercury may be doing the most aggressive and fun journalism in Portland right now, the best overall news outfit in the city is still Willamette Week. They've got a tremendous advantage just by not being a tool of the Schnitzer/Goodman set, and while they have their flaws they do legitimate legwork and skeptical analysis of the goings-on in the City of Roses. Their writers are generally solid, headed of course by the Pultizer-winning Nigel Jaquiss. Maybe it's an unreasonable mantle to put on their heads, but I've come to expect good, rigorous work from WW.

Which has made this whole episode with Betsy Johnson rather disappointing. I certainly give him credit for being savvy enough, but after digging deeper into his stories and trying to follow the backstory behind the allegations, I wonder if Jaquiss hasn't been entirely too credulous to those who appear to have informed much of his reporting, particularly as it concerns Senate Bill 807 and in fact the entire set of claims surrounding Johnson's conflict of interest in sales and development around Scappoose Airpark.

(Now is also a good time to discuss briefly the Metolius angle in Sb30 that Jaquiss brought up in the first part of WWeek's Johnson series. We've found no credible or even articulated suggestion of what Johnson gains by being one of the sponsors of Sb30, and we think the smear campaign being run by the Bend Bulletin (which we can't show you because they are behind a subscription wall) is evidence enough of the attempt to scapegoat Johnson in an attempt to get Sb30 blocked for supporters' ends. To report that connection without exploring more of the local politics behind Sb30 made for an unfairly skewed presentation, in our opinion, and has unnecessarily fed the controversy surrounding Johnson. But that's not what this piece is about.)

The primary bases used by Jaquiss to suggest self-interest regarding Sb807--the bill that creates airport taxing districts for funding infrastructure and aviation-related development--were her sole sponsorship of the bill, and the suggestions of conflict by the Port of St. Helens (POSH) staff in their report on Scappoose Airpark's participation in the development program authorized in Johnson's bill of 2005, Sb680. (Yes, I know this is a long and crazy trail of bills and sales and angles, please hang with me.) The guest piece by Aaron Faegre Saturday takes care of the "sole sponsorship" angle, so let's talk about the conflict part.

On June 1st, Jaquiss reported in an update:
WW has learned that after Senate Bill 680 became law, Port of St. Helens Commissioner Colleen DeShazer requested a staff evaluation of whether the port, which controls the Scappoose Airport, should participate in the program created by Johnson’s bill.

A lengthy March 8, 2006 staff report strongly recommended against doing so, saying Johnson’s bill could among other things, "jeopardize existing federal funding," and "lessen local community control."

Most notably, the report said, "Participation in this program provides the opportunity for perceived conflicts of interest with and by State Senator Betsy Johnson and TransWestern Aviation. The Port should refrain from creating the appearance of such conflicts of interest to protect both the Port and affected businesses." (Johnson says the Port of St. Helens, which subsequently reversed that initial decision, has long dragged its feet on development around the airport.)
By "reversed that initial decision," Johnson may have meant "that's not what the actual Commission decided, the staff member's report notwithstanding." She'd be right if that were the case, but we don't get any illumination from that by WWeek. So we had to get it ourselves.

We can't be sure who sourced Jaquiss on this report, and of course he'd rightly never tell us, but we're 90% sure it was one of two people: POSH Executive Director Pete Williamson, or his Deputy Gregory Jenks. They headed the staff that was responsible for the quoted report, and Jenks himself composed it for review by the POSH Commission. It could theoretically also have come from one of the Commissioners themselves, but having spoken with them at length over the last few days, it seems highly unlikely any of them were passing confidential documents to Jaquiss in order to help give Johnson negative press.

Working on the assumption that it is either Williamson or Jenks--both of whom have had well-known battles with Johnson--who gave Jaquiss the memo, let's further assume it's Jenks, because he wrote it (and because we'll deal with Williamson and The O tomorrow). Jenks' time at POSH was not one marked by high regard, let's say. He was eventually given the opportunity to resign/fired from his position.

We expect that archived Scappoose Sentinel articles that we are in the process of acquiring will show that Jenks was fired for multiple offenses of a sexual or lewd nature, based on multiple-source reports that allegations included charges of harboring pornography on his workstation, making lewd suggestions to a coworker, and being caught masturbating at the office by another staffer. We do know that Jenks' office computer was seized as part of the internal investigation into his conduct, and while she had left POSH by this time, when asked whether she had heard of porn and sexual harrassment allegations against Jenks former Commissioner Pat Zimmerman responded "I think that's true." At least one person engaged by the Port at the time verified to us that they personally saw evidence of pornography on Jenks' computer.

Also according to DeShazer, Williamson was approached by a staff member about the allegations, and either refused or ultimately did nothing to address the situation. An outside inquiry was conducted on the actions of Jenks and Williamson, a report we are also trying to get--but which even some Commissioners were not allowed to see.

So what we have here is a member of the permanent staff (not the Commission itself), someone who was specifically referred to by Zimmerman as "observably incompetent," writing a memo that was more about directly accusing Johnson of impropriety as it was about recommendations for the airport. This someone was later asked to leave upon discovering he was a filthy pervert who couldn't keep it in his pants long enough to get his work done. When Sb680 came before the Commission, according to Commssioner Earl Fisher they took the step of admonishing both Jenks and Williamson for spending copious amounts of time trying to link Johnson's role to her personal profit.

It's that last note there that leads us back to the document brought up by Jaquiss, the report written by porn hound and office perv Gregory Jenks. We have that document, but we also have what Jenks probably never told Jaquiss about...the same document, approved two weeks later as final.

Here's what we're talking about: this is the original file {pdf}. It's an image so I can't paste the relevant section here, but at the end of page 3 and beginning of page 4, Jenks goes right after Johnson: "Local airport managers from around the state regard SB680 as a conflict of interest for Senator Johnson and opposed the legislation." Jenks then cited a St. Helens Chronicle article from February 2006 that makes a vague comment about Helm and Johnson overpaying for airport access, and notes:
First it appears to maybe (sic) an admission of improper conduct and should be reviewed by legal counsel, because it implies their payment was excessive because they did not want to 'raise any questions.'
The date on that memo is March 8, 2006. However, what Jenks apparently did not tell Jaquiss--at least we hope not--is that this memo was only a draft submitted to the POSH Commission, and that the section I just cited was excised from the final version as approved. Here's what was approved on March 22nd {pdf}, and you'll notice none of the above appears.

I think there are two strong implications from this fact. First, it strengthens the notion that Jenks is the source for Jaquiss on the letter, since Jenks is the likeliest person to still have a draft that was written by him but not approved for the record. Secondly, it seems highly unlikely that it's mere coincidence that this draft was what Jaquiss got, considering that the portion eventually excised is the harshest and most directly accusatory section of the letter. Jaquiss doesn't quote the section I did, probably for the same reason that the Commission yanked it--it's clumsily attempted and not very convincing--but it makes you wonder why it didn't make Jaquiss wonder: what the hell with this guy; he seems pretty focused on Johnson.

Now, both versions of the letter include the more formalized version of the statement that Port staff feared the implication of conflict of interest. The fear of suggested of impropriety is a fair accusation to make, even though none of the Commissioners we've talked to think any such impropriety or ethical cloud are involved in Johnson's land sale and legislative efforts. But the cockeyed rant at the end of Jenks' first draft is a tell that he's got a chip on his shoulder to knock Johnson down.

And dammit, that is VITAL information when you're writing a series of articles accusing a state Senator of influence peddling: what interest does the person have who is telling me all this? Is he or she credible? Does he or she have an axe to grind? Am I getting verified information from this person? Are their statements and allegations reasonably made? Are they respected in their field and the performance of the job they're doing? These questions need to be asked, in our view, and we're concerned that they don't appear to have been. If people knew about the folks likely responsible for putting this information in front of WWeek and The O, would it make a difference for them as to the legitimacy of the allegations? We think maybe.

[Stick with us tomorrow when Carla shows The O why Pete Williamson may not have been the best choice of sources for them, either...]

Update, midnight 6/12--
In the comments, Coyote notes that Jaquiss' source for the draft Port memo is not Greg Jenks, and is in fact female. At first I was startled, because among the other people who would have original access to the draft version are the female Commissioners on the Port board at the time, and I couldn't imagine why they would do such a thing after the way they'd talked to us.

We were right on that it seems; now we understand we're talking about who specifically gave Jaquiss the report. Jenks didn't provide the report to Jaquiss, but very few people had access to the final document, much less the draft.* We still have to believe that none of the commissioners provided it to someone to then give to media, leaving Williamson or Jenks as the most likely. Thank you Coyote; clarification was indeed required.

*The name of someone deeply involved in both Metolius and taxing district business in Salem appeared here briefly, based on strong indications they are providing information to the media that seeks to impugn Johnson. Further attempts at confirmation revealed a miscommunication as to the precise nature of their involvement; we now no longer have a clear statement as to who directly provided Jaquiss with the Port memo in question.